George Blankenship has had the unique experience of working for two of the most revered leaders in the business world, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.
“Both of them were like they were here from a different point in time, and trying to get us to places they knew we could go, but that we didn't. And both were a blast to work for. Frustrating at times, exhilarating, but the sense of accomplishment you got working with them after you accomplished stuff that you thought was impossible, that was pretty cool.”
Through his tenure at Apple and Tesla, among other world-class companies, Blankenship learned a number of lessons about innovation and customer experience that he shared with the audience.
“The way most people thought about Apple products in the year 2000 was, ‘I don't want one.’”
When Blankenship started at Apple, he observed that consumers had preconceived reasons for avoiding Apple computers, from having to learn a different operating system to believing Apples were “only for those ‘cult’ people.”
Apple would have to do something very different, and the company’s answer was to “ambush people when they're not thinking about buying a computer” by opening stores in high-traffic shopping centers. When the first two Apple stores opened in 2001, 1,500 people lined up outside each, and Apple sold out of the laptops they had launched that weekend.
Similarly, Tesla sought to attract customers who had never heard of the company and sell a product that wasn’t even available yet.
Blankenship asked, “What if buying a car could be fun? Could be something you look forward to? Was done in a cool place, with product specialists, not commissioned sales people? What if we could take a model we had before, ambush people when they're not thinking about buying a car, and get them to want a Tesla?”
Those questions inspired Tesla’s first shopping center store in Santana Row in Northern California, which was outfitted with big graphics on the wall, a 42-inch touch screen where customers could design a car, and a huge video wall where they could “throw” their design onto the big screen. The store attracted visitors in droves.
Blankenship described the iPhone as a turning point for a company that had gone from trying to sell products consumers didn’t want, to having people camp outside stores overnight “so they could be first in line to get an Apple product that no one had ever even seen.”
What drove that desire? Blankenship believes it comes down to four elements: innovation, design, simplicity, and the ownership experience. Form, function, and even color all attracted customers to the products, from the iMac to the iPod. “But the products are complemented by the experience.”
Tesla started selling its larger sedan before it was available, and by the time the first car was finally delivered, the company had collected $5,000 apiece from more than 20,000 people willing to lay down money on a promise. As Blankenship had told the New York Times, “I hope we never sell anyone a car. I want people to buy a Tesla because they want it.”
At Apple, “We wanted to be able to engage with customers however they wanted to engage with us, and that's what we set out to do,” Blankenship said. Apple’s purchasing process includes the ability to buy online and pick up in the store, as well as use an app for self-checkout.
As for Tesla, Blankenship contends it’s not the company’s electric vehicles that make it disruptive in the auto industry. Rather, it’s the distribution model that goes directly to the customer, with the ability to order a car online and never set foot in a dealership.
“The first time you ever have to deal with somebody from Tesla? When you pick up your car,” he said. “But at the same time, you can visit the store 57 times before you order your car if you want to. It's however you want to be engaged with.”
Once a Tesla owner, a key part of the experience is the over-the-air software updates that allow new features to be installed in the car and fixes to be made without one visit to a dealer.
When Consumer Reports initially left the Model 3 off its recommended list, Tesla pushed out software to fix the braking and user interface issues detailed by the magazine; the Model 3 made the next list. “And Tesla didn't touch one of those cars. Not one.”
“Things are not impossible, they just haven't been done yet,” Blankenship said at the close of his remarks.
Musk, whom Blankenship described as “a little bit of Steve Jobs, a little bit of Thomas Edison, a little bit of Christopher Columbus wanting to go to the New World... in a nine-year-old boy,” continually seeks to do the impossible.
That’s what the idea of a Tesla car was 10 years ago¾fully electric, 250+ miles on one charge, zero to 60 in 4.2 seconds, chargeable anywhere. “People absolutely said that's impossible. And it was, sort of. Until Tesla did it.”